For many members of the HNS, the early 1970s may not seem to be very historical. But Ian McEwan’s new novel, which is set in England during this period, seems to concern a wholly different time and country than we know today.
Serena Frome, a beautiful, literature-loving mathematics graduate from Cambridge, is recruited to work for the UK Security Service MI5 by Professor Tony Canning, with whom she had an idyllic summer love affair in 1972. She starts her work in a country beset by industrial strife, economic dislocation and in the midst of the Cold War. Serena is shocked to discover that Tony had previously supplied documents to the USSR and had recently died as a pariah. She then becomes involved in a project, known as Sweet Tooth, to fund British authors to write articles and books critical of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc. In this way, she meets and falls for Tom Haley, an upcoming writer who seems to be closely based upon Ian McEwan himself. When Haley’s work is nominated for a literary prize, matters start to get difficult for Serena as he has no knowledge of her role in MI5, thinking that she represents the charitable foundation that provides the funding to encourage emerging writers.
As one would expect from the talents of the author, this is a consummately well-written story, engaging and authentically located in the conflict-ridden England that seemed to be spiralling towards a terminal decline in the early 1970s. There is a neat and unexpected twist at the end that challenges the reader’s perspective on the foregoing narrative. An excellent book.